In the Shadow of the Gods (4 page)

Blood poured out of Betho's nose as he scrambled to his feet with a bellow. There were chains between his wrists, but
if anyone could figure out how to land a punch while chained up, it would be Betho. He hit Scal in the stomach with enough force to knock the air out of Kerrus as well, and priest and boy went tumbling to the floor. Through misty eyes Kerrus saw Betho pull his boot back for a kick, and then a dozen other boots filled the cramped kitchen as wardens rushed in to pin Betho down. Wheezing, Kerrus grabbed Scal by the back of his coat and started crawling for fresh cold air.

When Eddin found him, he was sitting against the outer wall of the kitchen, on top of a squirming little Northman. The two men watched as the other wardens dragged Fat Betho struggling and roaring away, likely to be thrown down in the Dark Box. Lucky for him they'd been on low rations lately; he hadn't fit last time they'd had to stick him down there, so they'd just chained him up outside the walls for a few nights. That had put the terror in him right enough, and he hadn't caused any trouble for a good long while.

Chief Warden Eddin watched Scal thrashing about underneath the priest for a while, then sighed. “I can't have him causing no trouble, Parro. I'm in enough shit with the men as it is, and I can't blame 'em. If there's a devil of a Northman tearing around the place . . .”

“He's no devil,” Kerrus said firmly, and smacked the boy on the side of the head to get him to stop squirming so much. “Betho deserved a good punching. Hells, Betho deserves a good killing. He's a right bastard, and I likely would've punched him myself if he kept flapping his lips much longer.”

“No, you wouldn't've.”

“Aye, you're right, but I would've thought about it real hard.” Kerrus shrugged, and now that Scal had settled down
some, he pushed himself off the boy. He sat up, leaning back against the wall next to Kerrus. A calm shadow once again. Kerrus rested his hand on the boy's head. “He's a good lad, Eddin. I know he is. Every man in the world has the Father's fire within him, and I can't blame the lad for letting some of his out. But we've all the Mother's heart, too. The boy just needs time to settle in.”

Eddin studied the boy for a good long while, and then sighed again. “Keep your eye on him hard, Parro. Anything else like this, and it's the snows for 'im.”

The new prisoners arrived a few days later, and as always Kerrus
took it upon himself to help them adjust to life in Aardanel. The families of the condemned were his especial concern, those wives and husbands who'd chosen to stay by their loved ones in exile. A perfect example of Metherra's gift of love, Kerrus's old master would have said, and Patharro's steadfastness. Idiocy, Kerrus called it, especially when the loyal fools brought their children with them. The camp was crawling with children, innocent children who'd likely know no other life because both their parents had bollocks for brains. They'd each be given the choice, when they reached their majority: stay in the camp and continue the life of labor their parents had chosen, or walk empty-handed out the gates, into the snows, and find whatever life or death awaited them beyond. It was a week's walk to the nearest Fiateran village, with nothing but snow in between. Most chose to work, to live the life they'd known longest, to die a death they could at least see coming.

Aardanel was no place for a child.

Kerrus watched them march in, a dozen or so skinny,
bedraggled-looking folk at the center of a company of guards. Six in chains with their heads shaved and a big bloody
X
carved into their left cheeks, convicted criminals who chose a slow death in hell rather than the speedy neck-jerking drop straight down. Four children, wide-eyed and crying, like as not to die before the week was out, all thanks to their parents' crimes.

The wardens separated prisoners from families, marching the convicts into the main hall so Eddin could tell them what was what. A few other wardens herded the sobbing families toward Kerrus, standing in the doorway of the chapel. He spread his arms wide to them, welcoming the two wives, the husband, the four children into the Parents' loving embrace. “Be welcome, child,” he murmured to each in turn as they shuffled past him, into the meager warmth the chapel had to offer. After a week's cruel march through the snows, Kerrus didn't doubt they were grateful for any warmth at all. They all went to huddle round the everflame, pressing shaking hands as close as they dared. One of the wives began to pray, holding three black-haired children close. The fourth child, who stood at his father's side, edging nearer for warmth, was elbowed away.

Aardanel was no place for love.

“Well, priest?” the man asked, glaring at Kerrus. “What words of comfort have you got for us? What've you got to say t' convince us this situation's less of a feck-all than it looks?”

Kerrus shrugged. “Nothing. It is a feck-all of a situation you're in, and there's nothing I can say to make it any different. You chose to come here, knowing what this place is, and I won't tell you lies to warm your hearts. It's been called hell, and I can't imagine any of the real hells being too much different.” The women were crying again, and the one had stopped
her praying. There was little enough kindness left in Parro Kerrus's heart, little room for sympathy, for comfort. He'd been here too long, seen too much.

Aardanel was no place for hope.

“You'll each be assigned a duty—everyone does their part here. The wardens will give you yours, and show you to your huts. My hut is right next door here, if you need to talk, need advice, need anything. I hold prayer every eightday, but the chapel is always open. The best advice I can give you now is to keep your heads down, keep the Parents in your heart, and make the best of the choices you've made. It's scant comfort, but it's the most you're like to find here.” Yes, Kerrus always took it upon himself to help the newcomers adjust to life in Aardanel. To teach them as quick as possible that it was a heartless and unforgiving life they'd put themselves in. “Now, if I may, I would like to speak to the children. You may wait for them outside, or the wardens can show you to your huts, and I will return them to you.”

“Why?” the mother of the three demanded, holding them all closer. The father walked to the door without a backward glance, leaving his son huddled by the everflame.

“Children have an especially hard time adjusting to life in Aardanel. I would speak to them, put them somewhat at ease.”

The childless wife snorted. “Aye, you've a real talent for that,” and she followed the father out the door.

“I ask only a moment,” Kerrus assured the mother, who clung still to the last familiar things in her quickly changing life. But finally she released them, handing the smallest to the oldest and heading out the door with a last, suspicious glance at the parro.

With popping joints Kerrus lowered himself onto the ground, sitting near the everflame. “My children,” he said softly, looking at them each in turn, “I wish I were not speaking to you right now, for it would mean you were not here.” He reached into a pocket and produced a handful of sweets. The children grabbed for them eagerly, eyes bright, as though they hadn't seen food in days. As though they hadn't seen kindness in years. He sighed. “What I said to your parents is true. This is not a pleasant home, and it will not be an easy life. You are innocents, brought here by the choices of others, and for that I am sorry. But know that Metherra still holds you close in her heart, that Patharro still shields your back.
I
will watch over you, do all that I may to see you each safe and comfortable. If you have need of anything, I beg you, ask me and I will do what I can. Aardanel is no place for children, but I would see that your lives are made as good as they can be.” He handed out another sweet to each, murmured a brief prayer. “Be on your way now, children. Keep the Parents' kindness in your hearts.”

The three black-haired children fled, their cheeks bulging with the sweets. The youngest was sniffling, her nose running, death a shadow on her pale cheeks. She would go to the flames, and soon, too, Kerrus thought sadly, and her delicate siblings not long after. They weren't made for the North, and Aardanel was no place for compassion.

The single boy lingered, staring at the ground, shuffling his feet, holding tight to something strung on a cord about his neck. He was young, but his face was hard, sharp, grim, a face that had seen too much bad and not near enough good. His eyes, when he lifted them to Parro Kerrus, showed the only
softness, a plea that burned through him. There was a fire in his heart, one that would not be extinguished as easily as in those softer children. His hand dropped to his side, revealing the painted flamedisk around his neck, the symbol of the Parents' endless compassion.

“They say the Mother's turned her back on this place,” the boy said quietly, a quavering note winding through the words. “That Patharro's closed his eyes on us. Is it true?”

That was a question Kerrus had not been asked in a long while. Most of those who came to Aardanel had given up or turned away from the Parents long since, and any seeking spiritual guidance were few and far between. “What's your name, boy?”

“Brennon.”

“Well, Brennon. They say, too, that the Parents only turn away from silence. I've spoken to them every day these past forty years, lad. They'll not turn away from this place so long as I have breath left in me.” He gave the boy an assessing look, and a pointed glance to the flamedisk. “Will you pray with me, child? Help me keep the Parents' attention on this sad corner of the world?”

They knelt on opposite sides of the everflame, and as Kerrus began his prayer, Scal ghosted out from the shadows and knelt between them, ever to Kerrus's right, hands folded like a practiced penitent. Brennon gave him a startled look, then snapped his eyes shut as Kerrus raised his voice sternly. “Divine Mother, Almighty Father, shapers of the earth and keepers of the flame, we ask you hear our hearts. Gentle Metherra, we offer you our fears and beg you soothe them. Stalwart Patharro, we give our hearts unto your keeping, and beg you keep the darkness at
bay. Holy Parents, we give you all that we are, and ask only for your shelter, now and for always. We are the tenders of the flame, and we keep it burning in your honor. Mother preserve us, and Father shield our souls.” He threw a small packet of herbs and kindling into the everflame, sending up a fragrant puff of smoke, and gave one each to Brennon and Scal. The boys, equally solemn, threw in their own packets, Brennon murmuring softly. Kerrus rested a hand on each of their shoulders, adding a silent prayer.
Keep them happy, Tender Metherra. Keep them from breaking, Loving Patharro. Let them find some joy in this cold, dark place.

“Thank you, Parro,” Brennon said quietly, rubbing smoke from his eyes.

“Any time, lad,” Kerrus said, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “And remember what I said. If you need anything, even just to talk, come to me. And Scal here, too. He's a fine listener. You're not alone, Brennon.” He gave the boy a gentle push toward the door. “Best get back to your parents now, lad.”

At the door Brennon paused, eyes lingering on Scal, and the little Northman stared right back. It had been too long since Kerrus's childhood, and he couldn't decipher the look matched in each set of young eyes; not quite a challenge, not exactly unfriendly. Sizing each other up, perhaps. Brennon was the first to turn away, sliding out through the doorway, and Kerrus almost thought he saw a trace of a smile on the boy's face. Impossible. Aardanel was no place for a smile.

With a dozen new mouths to feed, Kerrus found himself scouring
his root cellar much more often, loading up Scal's basket with stunted carrots, miniature cabbages, and shrunken
onions. The saddest part was that everyone would be grateful for a nibble of any unripe sprout, and likely fall over themselves with joy for a taste of onion broth.

“Sad state of affairs, my boy,” Kerrus grunted over his shoulder at Scal. “You might have waited to find your way here until spring. Not that the food would be much better, but there'd at least be more of it. Though I daresay there'll be fewer mouths to feed soon enough.” The mother of three had turned up sobbing at his door early that morning, youngest child clutched in her arms, begging him to save her. He'd bundled the girl up near the everflame, said what prayers he could, but the rattle in her chest when she pulled in each laborious breath told him it wouldn't be too long.

Kerrus levered himself to his feet, turned to take the basket from Scal, and found to his great surprise that his shadow was missing. The vegetable basket rocked gently on the ground, no sign of its holder. After a few weeks of Scal's constant presence, his absence was more than a little disturbing. Kerrus quickly scooped up the basket and hurried out from behind his hut, out into the busy main thoroughfare of Aardanel. Busy being a relative term, of course. A dozen adults at most, hurrying here or there on an errand; perhaps twenty children scattered along the street, alone or in small groups, doing their own little jobs. There was a small knot of children, staring down at something on the ground; suspicious, Kerrus sidled over to the group.

Two boys were flopping around on the ground, grappling clumsily at each other, fists and feet flailing. Brennon's face swam up out of a tangle of elbows, and then, to Kerrus's horror, a shock of blond hair butted into Brennon's nose. Brennon fell away snorting and coughing blood, and Scal rolled onto his
knees; Kerrus drew in a deep breath, but before he could loose his bellow, Brennon began to laugh. “Good hit!” he said, grinning with bloody teeth, and pounced at Scal. And they grappled again, grinning and snarling at the same time, both soon smeared with blood from Brennon's bleeding nose. A brief glimpse of Scal showed the little Northman's solemn face split into a wide grin.

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